Sermon for the 13th Sunday after Pentecost
Calvary - St. George's Church, Manhattan
“Be strong in the Lord and in the strength of his power. Put on the whole armor of God. For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, the authorities, the cosmic powers of this present darkness.”
If anyone has ‘been strong in the Lord,' it’s Dietrich Bonhoeffer. When nearly every German minister capitulated to the horrible desires and decrees of the Third Reich, Bonhoeffer remained steadfast.
His dissent began early. Two days after Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, with storm troopers already on the streets, the 27 year old German pastor gave a dangerous radio address proclaiming resistance to the Fuhrer and support for German Jews.
The rest of his life, until he was executed in a concentration camp in 1945, was one of resistance against the ‘rulers and authorities; the cosmic powers of this present darkness.’
Bonhoeffer was so rooted in confidence and trust in his Lord that his very real fear and anxiety were simply swallowed up.
In this morning’s epistle lesson St. Paul tells his hearers to ‘be strong in the Lord.’ He writes this to emphasize that even though we may be blind to it, a war is at hand. A war with an enemy that is opposed to the purposes of God. Opposed to peace and truth, righteousness and salvation, faith and the gospel. Paul is telling us to ‘be strong’ because he wants us to take this enemy seriously.
But notice that when he writes about this enemy, when he speaks out against the powers that be, he’s not just talking about King Herod or Pontius Pilate or the Roman emperor. He’s also talking about what he calls the powers behind these figures, the forces beyond systems of institutional injustice and oppression.
Paul is not saying that people like Hitler and institutions like the SS are not the problem, but he’s saying that it goes even deeper than that. He’s saying that there’s more than just the surface narrative, more than what’s right in front of our eyes. You see Paul is premodern. He does not believe in a closed universe. He believes instead in a porous cosmos. He thinks there’s more, but not less, than what meets the eye when we see systemic oppression at work.
Now, I’d love to go deeper into this topic because it’s a little far out for us moderns and I think there’s an equal amount of confusion about it among both Christians and non-Christians, but suffice it to say for now that Paul makes this point—he brings in the deeper narrative—in order to emphasize that this war is not against ‘flesh and blood.’ We’re not encouraged to take up arms and kill. The nonviolent nature of this war is emphasized further when Paul talks about the armor of God. Notice that this metaphorical armor that we are to ‘take up’ is not made up of weapons designed to take people out. On the contrary, this armor refers to peace and truth, righteousness and salvation, faith and the word of God.
To be sure there is an offensive nature to this armor. The sword of the Spirit is about resistance to these cosmic powers manifested in systemic poverty, racism, and oppression of all sorts. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s unwavering dissent in the midst of danger is truly an example for all times.
But with that said, what Paul is talking about here is also defensive. You see the armor of God is a covering. It’s not something we've made or that's intrinsic to us. It is a gift from God. It is a gift of protection to withstand these powers. To remain firm in the midst of attack from censors and storm troopers and tyrannical entities. In the thick of fear and anxiety, we are given a gift that births goodness that we don't have, engenders resistance that we can’t muster, that brings forth dissent when all we want to do keep quiet and ride this thing out.
This is not a good thing. And I do not want to glorify it. But if you’re like me and you know that you can’t live up to this call, thankfully, there is still good news. Thankfully, the good news of the gospel, the truth that we are loved and accepted by God not on the basis of what we bring to the table, but because of what he did for us, remains indelible. For the good of the gospel is that the doorposts of our hearts are not only covered with the armor of God, but with the spotless blood of Christ.
And because we know that we are safe, that our standing before God is forever secure, we might just find ourselves so rooted in confidence and trust that though the causes of fear and anxiety still exist, their activity is simply swallowed up. As we internalize the truth of the gospel more and more, we, like Bonhoeffer, can ‘be strong,’ and not just during times of crisis, but in the midst of the fear and anxiety of everyday life.
My friends, a war is at hand, and if you turn on the 10 o’clock news you can feel it’s effects, but the good news is that the battle has been won and on that last day you and I will stand free of anything to fear. So do not be afraid, only trust.